The Science of Sustainability

Producer's Notes: Wastewater Woes – Bye-Bye, Poo-Poo!

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The guts of the system are hidden underground.
Right about the time I started researching the story about sewage spills in the Bay Area, I also started the preliminary stages of potty training my nearly-two-year-old twin boys. This involves first getting them familiar and comfortable with the whole process of using the toilet. So for the last couple of months, I’ve been dutifully inviting them into the bathroom with me when I go “potty”.

They LOVE announcing like, squawking little birds, exactly what it is I'm doing in there. They knock each other over for the chance to flush the toilet. But it seems the best part of all is giving it a hero’s send-off: "Bye-Bye, Poo-Poo! Bye-Bye, Poo-Poo! Bye-Bye, Poo-Poo!" Apart from it just being sort of fun to say, I don’t think that I’m imagining that they are experiencing a kind of satisfaction in making it go away. Call me jaded but I think my own enthusiasm for the process has faded somewhat since I was their age. But after producing Wastewater Woes: Sewage Spills in SF Bay, I've learned some things about sewage collection and wastewater treatment systems that are good to be aware of.

When one of the 47 wastewater treatment plants around the bay has a spill or an overflow during wet weather, it's unlikely that Bay Area residents consider that it was caused by anything that we've done or neglected to do. But I learned that one of the main reasons for so many sewage spills in San Francisco Bay- both from the treatment plants and the collection systems underground- is that those of us who use and depend on the sewage system don't really understand it. Water and sewage customers need to be conscious of a few key facts:

Sure, sewage is not the most pleasant thing to contemplate and it's understandable that most people don’t give it a second thought because the guts of the system are hidden underground. But it is precisely this "out of sight, out of mind" mentality that has led to untreated sewage spills in San Francisco Bay becoming a significant source of pollution that can have harmful impacts on people, animals and habitat. The cost of fixing the Bay Area's systems is estimated at several billion dollars. Obviously, that won't happen overnight. So in the meantime, have your own lateral inspected and repaired and don’t be surprised if your sewage rates continue to creep up.

For my own part, I will strive to teach my boys responsible flushing and instill in them a little bit of curiosity about what exactly happens AFTER we flush the toilet.


Watch the Wasterter Woes: Sewage Spills in SF Bay television story online.

UPDATE: Also see our Interactive Map of Bay Area publicly-owned sewage treatment plants and spills.
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Category: Biology, Environment, Water

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Amy Miller

About the Author ()

Amy Miller is the Supervising Producer and Partner at Spine Films, a boutique independent production company specializing in hard science factual television. Prior to joining the Spine team, Amy worked for six years at KQED (PBS) in San Francisco as the Series Producer of QUEST, a multimedia science and environment series. It was at KQED that she was finally able to merge her lifelong passions for science and storytelling. Originally from Iowa, Amy grew up in Colorado then landed in San Francisco in 1991. She studied biology and film production at University of Colorado and San Francisco State University, and since graduating in 1995, she has worked as a camera assistant, documentary filmmaker, TV producer and correspondent on a variety of cable and public television shows including two other KQED series, "Spark" and "Independent View". For her work in television, she has earned ten regional Emmy awards, two AAAS Kavli Science Journalism awards, and a Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism Feature Writing award.